From time to time we witness events of a historic and very public nature, and of such magnitude and importance that we remember forever exactly where we were when we experienced or learned of them. I have experienced four such events in my lifetime. The first was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. I was a senior in college, and I heard the devastating news while listening to the radio in my dormitory room. The second was Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk in August 1969. I was vacationing in Athens and watched that unbelievable event through the window of a department store where countless televisions were broadcasting it to a large, fascinated sidewalk audience. The third was the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. I was in my office at the University of Delaware that afternoon, preparing for a department meeting, when my wife called and said excitedly “they are tearing down the wall.” Incredible! I, like so many others, had thought the detested “Mauer” was there to stay at least through my lifetime, if not forever. Finally, I remember watching CNBC’s daily business program on 9/11/2001 while getting dressed for work. It was approximately 9:40 a.m., and the New York Stock Exchange had just opened. As the co-anchors were puzzling over what had just happened to one of the World Trade Center towers that had been hit by an airplane, I saw another plane come out of nowhere and smash into the second tower, causing the huge explosion, death and destruction we all remember. Four colossal and unforgettable events, two of them horrifying, the other two uniquely uplifting.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall profoundly affected the lives of many Eastern Europeans, who had been living since the end of World War II behind the so-called iron curtain, sealed off from the West and non-communist countries. During this period, 1945 to 1989, Germany had been divided into two states, the pro-Western Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, a communistic socialist state occupied and controlled by the Soviet Union. In October 1990, the world witnessed the reunification of the two Germanys, another momentous historical event I never expected to see in my lifetime.
The period leading up to the Berlin Wall’s collapse was one of unprecedented turmoil in the GDR, marked by mass demonstrations against the government and the system, first in Leipzig and then throughout the GDR. On August 23, 1989, Hungary opened its border to Austria, and thousands of East German tourists took advantage of this opportunity to escape to the West. The Socialist Unity Party (SED) leadership underestimated the seriousness of the situation and failed to make changes that might have calmed things down; nor, fortunately, did they use force to restore order. On October 18, 1989, Erich Honecker resigned unexpectedly as General Secretary of the SED Central Committee and was replaced that day by Egon Krenz. Krenz, a hard-liner like Honecker, was responsible at the time for security issues in the SED. He spoke vaguely of wanting to introduce a Wende or change in direction within the GDR, but did not initiate reforms or do anything else to improve the situation.
By sheer coincidence, GDR writer Helga Schütz was our house guest in October 1989, precisely when the change in the SED party leadership took place. She had come to the US to give lectures and readings at several universities, including the University of Delaware. We watched with fascination as events in the GDR unfolded, and it was incredibly interesting to hear Schütz’s commentary. Her presentation to a German-speaking audience was a very special occasion, since she was able to give us an insider’s perspective on what was occuring in the GDR.
On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. It happened suddenly and took everyone by surprise. Thousands of East Berliners had gathered at the border crossings that day and demanded that the crossing points be opened. In the evening, the crossing at Bornholmer Strasse was opened peacefully and soon thereafter other border crossings were opened as well. East Germans from all over the GDR rushed to East Berlin, and from there they streamed into West Berlin. On TV one saw East Germans standing on top of the Wall and talking to border guards, who did nothing to stop what was happening. In the days and weeks that followed, the Wall would literally be torn down, and on TV I watched people from both Germanys chipping away at the Wall with pickaxes, eager to help tear it down and obtain a concrete piece of history. These people were commonly referred to as Mauerspechte (wall peckers), and some of them sold small pieces of the wall to souvenir seekers. A friend of mine, a former UD student from Berlin, bought a piece of the wall for me. What a nice present and memory!
The fall of the Berlin Wall was not only the high point of Germany’s “peaceful revolution,” it was one of the greatest moments in German history! Another great moment would follow in October 1990 when the two Germanys were reunified and the GDR ceased to exist. A short while later, a colleague/friend of mine at UD offered me his condolences: “I’m sorry, Richard, that your area of research has gone out of existence.” How wrong he was!